Wednesday 3 August 2011

William Wordsworth

"I am sorry that Wordsworth has left a bad impression wherever he visited in town by his egotism, vanity and bigotry. Yet he is a great poet, if not a philosopher." This is what John Keats wrote to his brothers George and Thomas on 21st February 1818. Wordsworth would have been 48 at the time, and at the height of his fame, having published his long philosophical poem The Excursion (1797–1814) in 1814.

I had not gone back to Wordsworth's poems for many years, and as I reread them – from his early attempts to the great poem of his maturity, The Prelude, published only posthumously in 1850 – my own impression is that he is a poet more preoccupied with himself than with the world. There is no doubt he is a good poet – although he often goes on for too long and outstays his poetical welcome – but was he a great poet? His poetry doesn't tell you much about the world or the society he lived in – it's all a bit detached and rarefied. He is, quintessentially, very much the image of the self-centred modern writer.

Do I like him? I like his diction, but his poetry leaves me cold and makes me yawn occasionally. I could not find a truly memorable line in my 400-page Selected Poems.

I know that he is the favourite of some of my authors and translators, so I'll stop here before I make anyone cross. However, going back to Keats, I remember that a friend of mine once told me he agreed with TS Eliot that John Keats, had he lived into old age, would have turned into a boring reactionary such as William Wordsworth (I hope I am quoting correctly as it's from memory). Well, my own take is that William Wordsworth, even if had lived 500 or 700 years, would never have become as great a poet as Keats was in his short life.

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